Last spring, I called the man who raped me 14 years ago, and asked him for $10,000. At the time, I had $4,000 of unpaid medical bills and no idea how to pay them on my graduate school stipend. I had a stack of referrals to specialists for the severe headaches and terrifying episodes of weakness and fatigue that flared in sync with my PTSD symptoms. I had a dresser covered with expensive prescription medications for anxiety and bipolar depression and a health insurance plan that few psychiatrists in New York City would accept.
The previous fall, I’d helped organize a series of protests with the city’s Democratic Socialists of America chapter against Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court. In the months that followed, I put in long hours organizing against sexual violence with other socialist feminists. By March, I was burnt out and living with the worst PTSD I’d faced in years. In a moment of bitterness, I looked up my assailant, who I’ll call Dan, and saw he kept a blog, where he’d written about #MeToo. Specifically, he’d written about sending money to support women who’d come forward with #MeToo accusations in his community. Without pausing to think, I wrote him a quick email: I saw your blog. We have a history. Can we talk? A few minutes later, and much to my surprise, Dan replied. We scheduled a call.
When Dan’s face popped up on my computer screen five days later, I suddenly became calm. His hair was longer, but his eyes were the same. Even shaky with nerves, his voice was the same voice I remembered from the years we were college sweethearts and, afterward, friends. I knew him. I felt the need to set him at ease. We made small talk for a minute about our lives and our careers. Then I steered us toward the matter at hand. “It’s twelve and a half years on,” I said. “I finally want to use explicit language to describe what happened between us. When I describe what you did to me the first evening we were together, I describe it to myself now as a rape, and I wonder whether you would use the same words.”
When Dan stuttered and could not use the word rape to describe his actions, I was not surprised. “I’m having trouble coming up with clear language around intent here,” he said, not meeting my gaze. He knew he hadn’t asked for my consent, and he knew now I hadn’t consented. In a rush of words, Dan offered me restitution — money — for the harm that he had caused me. It was what I had wanted from him, and it wasn’t enough. Even if Dan didn’t feel like a rapist, I needed him to know a little about what it had been like to survive the violence he had committed on my body before I was ready to begin talking about making things right.
Dan and I met when we were teenagers. I was on a college visit, and he was a friendly sophomore who asked me to dance. When I enrolled at the college in 2006, I introduced myself to him again on the quad one evening after class. A week later, as the first big party of the year wound down, Dan invited me to his room with his upperclassmen friends. I was excited to be included by the older students and tagged along. Eventually, Dan’s friends left, and I stayed to listen to some music. I remember these events clearly.
What came after has become less clear with time. In the months after Dan raped me, I lay awake at night in my dorm room, repeatedly thinking about what he’d done to me, eyes staring into the dark. I can remember the exact angle at which the streetlight outside my window shone through the slats of my blinds. My memories of the precise manner and sequence in which Dan assaulted me have become fuzzier, like an old tape recording played and replayed until the picture is obscured by static. I remember a few images, the physical pain, and the nearly paralytic fear and shame that left me unable to put up more than a feeble resistance. I was hoping that if Dan could tell me his memories, my distorted recollections would become clear and certain. He was, after all, the only other person who had been in the room.
However, after 13 years, Dan’s memories were as fragmented — and inwardly focused — as my own. When I asked if Dan remembered the moment when I made some resistance, he replied, “I don’t remember that at all. I remember very little about your body language.” What Dan remembered, mostly, was what had been going on in his head. He’d been reading pickup artists before we met, and he said, “I was panicked for certain types of validation…I was extremely naive about the extent to which it was possible for people to just overtly give advice about how to, like, how to force sex and not have that unambiguously called out.”
I barely remember the days that followed my rape. In a confusing way, I had tried to explain what had happened to me to a college counselor after a mandatory sexual assault training for my dormitory floor. I don’t remember what words I used to describe my experience of unwanted, painful, and traumatizing sex. Still, I remember the counselor telling me not to be so uptight because sexuality was a normal part of growing up. I remember her giving me the advice to confront Dan one-on-one if I was still upset, and I remember that when I tried to follow that advice the next day after an evening class, Dan assaulted me again. In the aftermath of that second assault, I concluded that this must just be what sexuality was: If it was painful and shameful and disgusting, that must be what it was for everyone else also. I accepted my assault as normal and determined to make the best of it. If I could have a real relationship with Dan, I reasoned that my suffering would not be in vain. I dated him for two years.
In the years that followed our relationship, I dropped out of college three times and was hospitalized five times for self-harm and suicidal ideation. When I began dating again, some of my partners tried to help me cope with my trauma, but others used that trauma to exploit and abuse me themselves. The rape was like a whirlwind in my life: It picked up everything that had seemed stable, and when the wind died down, every part of me was permanently rearranged.
I told Dan all this and then, with my heart in my throat, asked him what he thought he could do to make things right. “Well, I can’t have the panic attacks for you,” Dan said. “But I think, morally, I’m on the hook for at least some substantial portion of your costs.” My stomach did backflips when I heard this. Although I’d been too nervous to ask outright, I wanted financial restitution, and I’d had a suspicion Dan would be good for a substantial sum. I vividly recall the summer after my freshman year when he visited me driving a brand new sedan bought with cash — the same model as the car my father had just bought, only my father had bought his car used and financed. When Dan graduated, he purchased a condo with the money remaining in his college fund. Unlike most survivors, I was lucky enough to be raped by a wealthy man.
I have experienced significant economic harm as a survivor of rape. I took out thousands of dollars in loans to attend my college, from which I never earned a degree. I have suffered from poor mental health for years as a result of trauma. I have faced unpredictable bills for hospitalizations and ambulance rides and regular copays for therapy visits and medications. It took financial resources from three generations of family members to meet these costs. Over the last decade, I estimate my total healthcare costs, at least partially attributable to having been raped, have totaled more than $30,000 — not including the student loans, lost jobs, and lost time.
I know my problems are not unique, even if the outcome of my conversation with Dan was unusual. Survivors of sexual violence, as a group, bear substantial financial burdens. Social scientists have quantified the lifetime costs of surviving intimate partner violence as much as $103,000 for women and $23,000 for men; costs for rape survivors are estimated to be even higher. Both acute and ongoing medical expenses are common, but survivors also incur costs from changing housing, dropping out of the workforce or education, and interacting with the criminal justice system.
Popular feminist approaches to addressing the financial harms caused by sexual violence have championed civil litigation and appeals to the criminal justice system. If a survivor happens to have been assaulted by someone without assets, a civil lawsuit won’t help them. Those survivors whose assailants have enough means to justify a civil lawsuit may find their ability to speak about their experiences sharply curtailed by the kind of nondisclosure agreements that have bound the former employees of ex-Mayor Michael Bloomberg and victims of the recently convicted Harvey Weinstein. The criminal justice system, meanwhile, is often actively harmful and notoriously retraumatizing to survivors of sexual violence. Victim compensation funds cap benefits at an average of $25,000 and are only accessible to survivors who quickly file police reports and cooperate with law enforcement.
In general, however, I object to the idea that any survivor of sexual or domestic violence should need to report the harm they experienced to the police, or bring a lawsuit, or describe their trauma in a GoFundMe to meet their financial needs. Survivors deserve a world where we can access necessary medical and mental health care, housing, and child care without having to prove we were harmed — and we deserve a feminist movement willing to fight for that world.
Nevertheless, as transformative as something like single-payer health care would be, deeper structural reforms are needed to eradicate the racism and sexism within the medical system, which harms survivors of sexual violence. The money needed to fund the networks of universal care and community support so desperately needed by survivors of violence might be found by divesting from police and prisons. As prison abolitionist Mariame Kaba has argued, by defunding the police we can simultaneously lessen the harms of police violence while also diverting much needed money toward real needs like physical and mental health care, education, housing, and good jobs. As for me, I’ve never wanted to see Dan in a cage, if for no other reason than it would be of no benefit to anyone at all.
In the end, Dan and I agreed that he would wire me $10,000 from his savings account, a sum that would clear my debts and leave me with enough money to see specialists about my worrying physical symptoms of pain and fatigue. Ultimately a neurologist diagnosed me with fibromyalgia, a chronic pain condition that disproportionately affects trauma survivors, and I began treatment. With a few clicks, Dan transformed the material conditions of my life. After I got off the call, I walked out into glorious spring sunshine and cried from laughing. Three days later, the money hit my bank account.
In the year after our conversation, I spent most of the $10,000 Dan sent me on health care. I was left feeling grateful, absurd as it is, for financial help yet furious that the lack of a social safety net in the U.S. meant I needed to ask my rapist for anything. I keep returning to what it felt like to put a dollar value on the harm I’ve experienced. I know that despite the substantial sum that Dan paid me, it will be only a drop in the bucket of the expenses I’ve borne and will continue to carry for the rest of my life. I chafe against the label “survivor” because, with my tangle of diagnoses and history of suicidality, trauma might be the thing that kills me after all — if it doesn’t bankrupt me first.
It has been 14 years since Dan assaulted me, and I have very little anger left for him. He harmed me grievously, but he has attempted to repair the damage he caused. I am still furious at the counselor who failed me when I tried to report that I had been assaulted, the student loan system that left my parents and me shackled to debt for a degree I never earned, and the health care system that rations care based on ability to pay its exorbitant prices. I am most furious at carceral feminisms, which have so little to offer to survivors with real economic needs. I have been a feminist since I knew what the word meant, but surviving rape made me a socialist.
Alexandra Walling is a member of the Socialist Feminist Working Group of the Democratic Socialists of America organizing to build a red New York City. She also studies comparative biology as a Ph.D. candidate at the Richard Gilder Graduate School of the American Museum of Natural History.